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Harris v. Arizona Board of Regents

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 25, 2017

Russell Harris, Plaintiff,
Arizona Board of Regents, et al., Defendants.



         Pro se Plaintiff Russell Harris filed a complaint against Defendants Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University (“ASU”), Lilly Perez-Freerks, Tamara Rounds, and Michelle Carney, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Docs. 26, 35. The individual Defendants are sued in their official capacities. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 38), and Plaintiff has filed various motions (Docs. 55, 57, 58, 61, 65). The motion to dismiss is fully briefed, and the Court concludes that oral argument is not necessary. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion to dismiss and deny Plaintiff's motions.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff was enrolled in the ASU Masters of Social Work (“MSW”) program. He was terminated from the program for allegedly unprofessional behavior. Plaintiff argues that Defendants did not accommodate his disability, as required by the ADA, and then retaliated against him when he sought - and complained about not receiving - reasonable accommodation. Docs. 26, 35. He alleges that he was ultimately dismissed from the MSW program because of his disability. Id.[1]

         Plaintiff sought review of his termination from the MSW program under Arizona's Administrative Review Act (“ARA”), A.R.S. § 12-901 et seq., in the Arizona Superior Court on March 25, 2016. Doc. 23-1 at 27. The defendants in that case brought a motion to dismiss, arguing that academic termination decisions are not judicially reviewable under the ARA. Doc. 23-1 at 5-6. Plaintiff filed a response under seal. The Superior Court ultimately granted the motion to dismiss, but did not explain its reasons. Doc. 23-2 at 5-6. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal to the Arizona Court of Appeals (id. at 8-9), but abandoned that appeal on August 29, 2016, before filing an opening brief (id. at 11-15). Plaintiff then filed this claim on November 21, 2016. Doc. 1.

         II. Motion to Dismiss.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claims are barred by res judicata - also referred to as claim preclusion - because they were or could have been brought in his previous action before the Superior Court. Doc.38 at 7.

         “It is now settled that a federal court must give to a state-court judgment the same preclusive effect as would be given that judgment under the law of the State in which the judgment was rendered.” Migra v. Warren City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 81 (1984); accord. Ayers v. City of Richmond, 895 F.2d 1267, 1270 (9th Cir. 1990). In Arizona, “res judicata will preclude a claim when a former judgment on the merits was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction and the matter now in issue between the same parties was, or might have been, determined in the former action.” Hall v. Lalli, 977 P.2d 776, 779 (Ariz. 1999); accord Blonder-Tongue Labs. v. Univ. of Ill. Found., 402 U.S. 313, 323-24 (1971). “To successfully assert the defense of claim preclusion, a party must prove: (1) an identity of claims in the suit in which a judgment was entered and the current litigation, (2) a final judgment on the merits in the previous litigation, and (3) identity or privity between parties in the two suits.” Peterson v. Newton, 307 P.3d 1020, 1022 (Ariz.Ct.App. 2013) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “Res judicata protects litigants from the burden of relitigating an identical issue and promotes judicial economy by preventing needless litigation.” Hall, 977 P.2d at (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         A. Final Judgment on the Merits.

         Plaintiff argues that the Superior Court's dismissal of his claim was not a final judgment on the merits. Doc. 45 at 4. The Superior Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice, dismissing Plaintiff's cause of action in its entirety and entering judgment. Doc. 23-2 at 5. Arizona law is clear that dismissal with prejudice is a final judgment on the merits. Torres v. Kennecott Copper Corp., 488 P.2d 477, 479 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1971).

         B. Privity.

         “Whether by way of res judicata or collateral estoppel, the preclusive effect of a judgment is limited to parties and persons in privity with parties.” Scottsdale Mem'l Health Sys., Inc. v. Clark, 759 P.2d 607, 612 (Ariz. 1988). In the Superior Court action, Plaintiff brought suit against the Arizona Board of Regents, ASU, and four university employees in their official capacities. Doc. 23-1; Doc. 53 at 7. In this case, Plaintiff brings suit against the Arizona Board of Regents, ASU, and three university employees in their official capacities. Doc. 35; Doc. 53 at 7.[2] Plaintiff argues that the identity or privity of parties element is not satisfied because one of the defendants from the state court action, Mr. Wertheimer, is not a party to this action. But Wertheimer's absence in this litigation does not defeat the privity requirement, which is based on the principle that “one is not bound by a judgment in personam in a litigation in which he is not designated as a party or to which he has not been made a party by service of process.” Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32, 40 (1940). Moreover, all of the university officials are sued in their official capacities. “[A] suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office. As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.” Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); Carrillo v. State, 817 P.2d 493, 496 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1991) (“As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.”).

         As a result, any discrepancy between the particular ASU employees sued in their official capacities in the two actions will not defeat privity, as ASU employees sued in their official capacities will necessarily be in privity with one another and with Defendant ASU. Privity between a party and a non-party requires both a “substantial identity of interests” and a “working or functional relationship” in which the interests of the non-party are presented and protected by the party in the litigation. Hall, 977 P.2d at 779. ASU and the officially-sued defendants in both cases have substantial identities of interest and a working relationship in which their interests align. The Court finds the privity requirement satisfied.[3]

         C. ...

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